Former student at California all-boys Catholic school alleges in suit he was sexually abused by teacher

East Bay Times [Walnut Creek CA]

September 21, 2022

By Scott Reid

Robert C. Cotton was a respected Servite teacher and administrator for more than 30 years. Lawsuit alleges he also sexually abused a student on a regular basis

Twice in the fall of 1980, Servite High School English teacher Robert C. Cotton had ordered a 16-year-old junior to an office near the school’s library so Cotton could search the student for drugs.

A few weeks earlier, the student said Cotton had caught him in class with drugs, “black beauties,” a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. That time and in two subsequent searches in the office, Cotton had aggressively frisked him in addition to going through the student’s backpack, the former student alleged in an interview.

The third office search, the former student said, would haunt him to this day.

Starting with that search, using the drug incident as leverage, the student claims Cotton sexually assaulted and molested him on a weekly to bi-weekly basis at Servite, at Cotton’s nearby apartment and at his family’s home until the young man graduated in May 1982, according to a lawsuit filed against Servite, the Diocese of Orange and the Order of Servants of Mary in Orange County Superior Court obtained by the Orange County Register.

The suit alleges that Servite, the diocese and the order were negligent in supervising both the student and Cotton, whose “grooming” of the teenager “culminated in his childhood sexual assault and abuse” of the boy.

“Instead, Defendants ignored and/or concealed the childhood sexual assault of Plaintiff and others by” Cotton, the suit said “and continued to allow numerous children, including the Plaintiff, to be in private, secluded areas with (Cotton), despite knowledge of or reasons to suspect (Cotton’s) prior sexually abusive acts toward minors.

“Under the guise of teaching and advising” Cotton, the suit alleges, “isolated the Plaintiff to sexually assault the Plaintiff on multiple occasions.”

In recalling an event that occurred more than four decades ago, the former student in a recent interview spoke with clarity and in detail about the alleged abuse.

“The third time,” the former student said before pausing to take a deep breath as if to steel himself for the journey through his past. “(Cotton said) ‘I just know you have drugs on you. You need to strip.’

“And I had one of those fork-in-the-road feelings. He locked the door, the blinds were drawn. I thought, ‘Am I going to say what the heck with this’ and just leave, or am I just going to power through it?”

The teenager pulled down his pants, bent over and Cotton molested him, the former student said in an interview.

“I quickly put my clothes back on,” the former student said.

“Did you really have to do that?” the former student recalled asking Cotton.

“Do you want to stay in school?” Cotton responded, the student said.

The alleged assault, said the former student, now 58, left him “with this enormous feeling of complete shame.”

“I’ve been bottled up since then,” the man continued. “I haven’t told anyone. But I want to do this now to help others.”

Cotton’s alleged use of the student’s admitted drug possession to coerce sex echoes the allegations against another beloved Servite figure in a lawsuit filed against Servite, the Diocese of Orange, the  Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Order of Servants of Mary in Orange County Superior Court this year.

That suit alleges that Father Kevin Fitzpatrick, Servite’s swimming and water polo coach, leveraged a 13-year-old prospective student getting caught cheating on an entrance exam as an opportunity to begin molesting the teenager in the spring of 1976. The suit alleges Fitzpatrick sexually abused the boy more than a dozen times a year while he attended Servite. (Some of Fitzpatrick’s alleged crimes took place while Servite was under the oversight of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The Diocese of Orange was founded in March 1976.)

Servite in July removed Fitzpatrick’s name from the school’s $5.7-million aquatic center pending the outcome of a school review of the allegations against the late priest.

Cotton’s alleged victim decided to come forward after reading an Orange County Register article detailing the allegations against Fitzpatrick.

“When I was reading it, what really stood out to me was the priest, that Father Fitz leveraged himself against a very vulnerable student,” the former student said.

“The leverage,” the man claims, is, “what (Cotton) did to me.”

Like the Fitzpatrick case, the Cotton suit is possible because of Assembly Bill 218, which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 and went into effect Jan. 1, 2020, creating a three-year window to file past claims that had expired under the statute of limitations.

Alleged survivors must file civil suits within eight years of becoming an adult or three years from the date an adult survivor “discovers” or should have discovered they were sexually abused, under current California law.

The law requires that plaintiffs meet a mental health practitioner and receive a certificate of merit to file under AB218. The man has received a certificate of merit to file, according to his attorney Michael Reck.

Cotton died in 2007 at the age of 71. There are no other known complaints against Cotton alleging sexual abuse.

Servite and the diocese did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“I’ve had to cope with it my entire adult life,” the former student said, referring to Cotton’s alleged abuse. “I have trust issues. Employment issues. I’ve had problems with drugs and alcohol.”

He acknowledged five arrests for driving under the influence between 1985 and 2000.

He had failed attempts at college. Classrooms triggered memories of Cotton’s alleged abuse.

“I couldn’t, I had trust issues in the academic environment,” he said. “I tried. It was horrible. I had no interest in being in a classroom or any kind of educational pursuit at all.

“I have trust issues with any form of authority.”

Cotton was hired at Servite in the early 1960s after graduating from Stanford with an English degree and after teaching three years at Mater Dei, according to court filings, his published obituary and Stanford records. He was a popular and well-respected teacher at Servite where he taught English and religion as well as serving as a vice principal and administrator and academic and curriculum advisor before retiring in 2000, according to court documents and his obituary.

“You taught us myth and legend and you have become legendary to us,” one former student wrote on his obituary page. “How do we miss you? As the great cathedral misses its mason.”

By the time the former student enrolled at Servite, the school, he said, had a reputation for getting students “into Ivy League schools and (Cotton) was a big part of that.”

The teenager came from a devout family and getting expelled from Servite would have been devastating to the family, especially his mother, he said.

“Complete embarrassment, shame,” he said.

“When I was caught I was pleading with him” not to report the student to school administrators, the former student said, referring to Cotton catching him with drugs in class.

“He asked me to stay after class,” the former student continued “He closed the door and did this aggressive frisking of me, then went through my backpack. The aggressive frisking was a little odd.

“The frisking went on again” at the next two checks, the former student said. “I would tense up. The whole feeling of touching, it was foreign, just wrong. It felt alien.”

After the third check in the Servite office, Cotton’s abuse of the teenager escalated. During the fourth check, Cotton exposed himself and masturbated, the former student said in an interview.

“He asked me to touch him,” the former student said. “I couldn’t.”   

Before long Cotton was sexually abusing the teenager after school and on the weekends at the teacher’s apartment, just blocks from Servite, according to the lawsuit and interview statements.

“The Waterwheel Apartments, 1144 North Euclid, Anaheim, Apartment 15,” the former student said, reciting Cotton’s address. “I felt completely helpless.”

Property records confirmed that Cotton lived at the apartment complex.

“I started questioning my sexuality,” the former student said. “I had to make sure I was heterosexual. I had to lose my virginity. So I did it. I had to do it to feel normal.”

In the process, the teenager got the girl pregnant. The girl got an abortion.

“We had to visit Planned Parenthood and (Cotton) paid for it, kept it confidential,” the former student said.

“It was an odd response.”

Later, the former student said, Cotton mocked his response to losing his virginity.

“He mimicked it, in a bravado way he mimicked it,” the man said. “And then he dismissed it and it was back to business.”

The former student said he last saw Cotton in 1992 when the teacher bailed him out of jail following the former student’s fourth DUI arrest.

The man said he has only been back to Servite once since graduating, returning in 2015 to pick up academic records.

“That was a difficult visit,” he said. “Had a physical, weird, odd reaction to it.”

Eight years earlier, he attended Cotton’s funeral.

“There wasn’t enough room in the church for everybody,” he said. “I had a morbid curiosity to see his family, I guess. I sat in the back row. It was quite a turnout.”